A Dicey Way Out of Dilemmas

A Dicey Way Out of Dilemmas June 13, 2013

In response to yesterday’s post on breaking promises, KristeninDallas made an alternate suggestion:

I’m not saying he should keep his promise, but I am saying he should feel at least a little bad about breaking it. We seem to have this need to rationalize everything and figure out the best choice and then pat ourselves on the back/ let ourselves off the hook when we make it. When we’re choosing between two clear goods, the pat is well earned. But when choosing the lesser of evils, I think we need to get over ourselves. We’re still chosing evil – and if we’ve walked down the wrong road so far that those are our only two choices, we do share in some of the blame. The doctor is already guilty of making a frivolous promise. So why can’t we just say that he should do right by the innocent man, which will mean doing wrong by the patient, and then appolgize to the patient for the wrong he did (or confess to someone else if that isn’t possible). The doctor isn’t a bad guy, but we all sin – owning some of the guilt when we do can be a good thing. It’ll help him think twice about his own capabilities and limits before making a breakable promise in the future

I think that having to keep a promise he regrets will also make the doctor think more carefully when making them in the future, but that’s not my real disagreement with Kristen’s comment.  I agree that people should notice when they (or someone/something else) have gotten themselves into a situation where they’re going to have to betray/harm someone.  But I’m concerned that instead of being spurred to avoid these kinds of situations in the first place, we have a tendency to pat ourselves on the back for making “the hard choice” and being modern day sin-eaters.

A few weeks ago, Ross Douthat noted that shows of regret (internal or external) can take the moral pressure off our choices.  “Gosh,” we say to ourselves, “this is pretty awful.  If I get the chance to undo it, I definitely will.”  But that thought can bring a kind of relief that let’s us look a little less intensely for an out in the moment or a way to avoid the situation again.  Once we’ve noticed that “this isn’t the kind of thing I should do” it’s easy to slide to “this isn’t the sort of thing I do do” and disconnect from the fact we’re still doing it.  Douthat wrote:

This willingness to grapple with moral complexity has always been one of the things that Obama’s admirers love about him, and even liberals who feel disappointed with his national security record still seem grateful for the change from George W. Bush. If we have to have an imperial president, their attitude seems to be, better to have one who shows some “anguish over the difficult trade-offs that perpetual war poses to a free society” (as The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer put it on Friday), rather than falling back on “the secrecy and winking smugness of the past.”

I am not particularly nostalgic for the Bush era either. But Obama’s Reinhold Niebuhr act comes with potential costs of its own. While the last president exuded a cowboyish certainty, this president is constantly examining his conscience in public — but if their policies are basically the same, the latter is no less of a performance. And there are ways in which it may be a more fundamentally dishonest one, because it perpetually promises harmonies that can’t be achieved and policy shifts that won’t actually be delivered…

There is no good reason to overpromise yet again. Where the United States can step back from a wartime footing, we absolutely should. But where we don’t actually intend to, we should be forthright about it — rather than pretending that change is perpetually just around the corner, and behaving as though our choices are justified by how much anguish we express while making them.

The rhetoric of regret can pacify an audience and embolden the speaker.  Studies in cognitive science show we fall prey to the consistency effect, where we constantly reinterpret or confabulate past events to imagine how they fit in with a consistent, admirable identity for ourselves.  My friend Squelchtoad noticed a way this pattern can play out when you start finding clever, necessary exceptions to moral injunctions:

Obama does not display a bleeding heart. He has proved himself willing to commit “necessary evils” if the alternative is a greater evil. I worry that he has begun to let the evilness an action cause him to overrate the necessity of that action. After all, surely cheating works better than following the rules! And cheating is transgressive and therefore fun

Herein lies the problem, perhaps, with encouraging people to conceive of themselves as what some of my geekier friends might call “Chaotic Good.”

If you break the rules, ostensibly for the sake of the greater good, you may become desensitized. You then no longer hesitate before breaking the rules to check whether it’s really “worth it.” You perhaps come to enjoy breaking the rules and to enjoy thinking of yourself as a pragmatic, manipulative operator. You perhaps even begin to commit, without thinking, a logical error: because you “know” that you only allow yourself to take evil actions when they are necessary, any evil action you consider taking must therefore be the only means of achieving something necessary. The more any of these things happen, the more likely you become to commit unnecessary evils.


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A terrible consequence of consequentialism

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  • grok87

    “But that thought can bring a kind of relief that let’s us look a little less intensely for an out in the moment or a way to avoid the situation again. Once we’ve noticed that “this isn’t the kind of thing I should do” it’s easy to slide to “this isn’t the sort of thing I do do” and disconnect from the fact we’re still doing it.”

    Good point, it’s a slippery slope. Today’s gospel (Matthew 5) seems apropos:

    “Jesus said to his disciples: “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.

    “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, Raqa, will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.”

    The gospel’s answer to the slippery slope, seems to be that we must keep walking/climbing up the slope! Keep raising the bar on our conduct (“righteousness”) Perhaps with this approach, we might at least manage to stay in one place, instead of sliding down the slope!

  • Yvain

    Okay, so you can use regret to make yourself feel better about a difficult moral choice. Agreed. But what are you proposing instead? I mean, the following seems to me like a real trichotomy:

    1. Believe that moral choices are sincerely difficult and that no option is perfect. Make whichever choice seems better, but remain regretful of the harmful results of your action (in this case, the innocent man who stays in prison).

    2. Believe that moral choices are sincerely difficult and that no option is perfect. Make whichever choice seems better, then congratulate yourself on a job well done and repress any thought of the harmful results of your action, because no use fretting when you did the best you could.

    3. Believe that moral choices are absolutely simple, black and white decisions and that all moral complexity is an illusion. Make the obviously correct good choice, then congratulate yourself on a job well done.

    If you’re attacking (1) here, what exactly are you proposing in its place?

    • Roki

      As I read it, Leah’s post objects to none of these as such. This trichotomy looks at making the best choice available; that is, the object of the choice is something good.

      Leah’s post discusses making choices known to be evil, even if a “lesser evil.”

      There’s a difference in kind between making the best choice available and making the least evil (or “least untruthful”?) choice.

      How one feels about the choice afterward, or justifies it to oneself or others, is secondary to whether one is choosing something good (and accepting that harm is inevitable) or choosing something evil (for the sake of some supposed other good).

      • Yvain

        I don’t understand your distinction. In a choice where all options contain some bad elements (like this one, where you must either break a promise or let an innocent man go to prison), surely making the best choice is identical to choosing the lesser of these two evils?

        • Roki

          There’s a difference between accepting or permitting some associated harm, and actually committing harm or evil.

          In some cases, (and this doctor’s may be one of them,) the difference may be invisible from the outside; the difference may be only in the agent’s intention.

          But even here, it may appear in the act itself.

          A doctor who intends to betray his patient might leave the patient in the exam room for a moment – “I’ll be right back!” – and then call 911.

          A doctor who intends to honor a higher truth than the confidence of patient and doctor might tell the patient, “Either you have to turn yourself in, or I’ll have to turn you in. It’s wrong to let that person take the blame for what you’ve done.” Then, assuming the patient refuses, the doctor would call the police.

          This is all assuming that revealing the innocence of the prisoner is a higher truth than keeping the confidence between doctor and patient. I’m taking that as granted for the sake of argument, but I’ve barely begun to give that ranking of goods serious thought.

  • Brutus

    The reflexively consistent think to do is (if virtue ethicist) to be happy being a promise-breaker, if the gain from breaking promises is high enough; or (if consequentialist) to weigh the consequences of breaking confidentiality once and saving one man from prison but dooming a tiny fraction of a large number of patients to various outcomes because they shouldn’t trust their doctor; or (if deontologist) to compare the priority of “Don’t break promises of confidentiality” and “Prevent innocent men from being imprisoned”.

    All of these can be done before making the promise; if one makes the promise, one has either lied through commission, lied through negligence, or demonstrated reflexive inconsistency.

    • Roki

      if the gain from breaking promises is high enough

      This doesn’t sound any different from consequentialism. It certainly doesn’t sound like virtue ethics.

      Virtue would be to pursue truth and fidelity as best one can, recognizing that one will necessarily fall short of the ideal in practice, but also that one will (or at least can) learn and grow from the experience, and that whatever good one accomplishes is genuinely good. Feelings of accomplishment and of regret and of frustration and of peace, or any combination of them, are all possible; satisfaction, in the sense of being entirely pleased with the situation and the perfection of one’s choice, would indicate some blindness to the real imperfection of oneself in the world.

      In the doctor’s case, I don’t think there’s any need for “breaking” a promise. As Martha O’Keeffe argues, a promise or oath is made within the context of a hierarchy of goods, and submits to a higher good. If the promise becomes an obstacle to the very good for which it was made, the promise steps aside; the promise is the servant of the good, not its master.

      • Brutus

        What you said sounds exactly like satisfaction with being someone who breaks promises when breaking promises is worthwhile.

        For what it’s worth, I consider “breaking” a forward-looking statement like a promise to include (but not limited to) all actions which directly cause the promise (phrased as a statement) to be false. If you say “I promise that I won’t tell anybody about what you tell me in my office.” and then tell somebody what transpired in your office, you have broken your promise. You might be morally right to have done so, but you can’t reasonably argue that that promise included your hierarchy of goods and conditions under which it didn’t apply. “This conversation is protected by doctor-patient privilege.” DOES specifically include the circumstances under which it no longer applies.

        If promises are important to you, make only promises that you keep.

        • Roki

          Then we were meaning different things by “promise.” I was taking “promise” as assuming the context of a hierarchy of goods, and so containing implicitly the sort of exceptions and discretions explicit in privileged fiduciary relationships.

          Even with this meaning, I’m fully in agreement that one should not promise what one cannot fulfill.

          However, I’m happy to use your definition for the sake of argument. I would simply say that, given that definition, it cannot be morally wrong in every case to break a promise. In fact, I think it becomes difficult to describe why it would be wrong to break a promise at all, unless it were placed in the context of a larger moral principle.

  • Erick

    Leah, I think the real problem here is that people (you and the doctor in this case) are trying to limit the scope of costs associated with the decision to break the promise – in this case limiting the scope to regret and the mental state.
    Jesus asks us to sacrifice identities and to bear real crosses in order to accomplish the truly moral. In this case, the doctor has it right. He is a coward hiding behind his oath as a doctor. The obvious solution is give up his identity as “doctor”, just as a lawyer should give up his membership in the bar if he chose to witness against a client.
    The problem we have as people, of course, is that this is a really difficult solution. But Jesus never said being moral would be easy.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Call it coincidence or synchronicity or serendipity, but I’m signed up to get daily extracts from the catechism via email and today they included part about keeping promises, based on the following:

    “Article 8: The Eighth Commandment

    You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour

    2491 Professional secrets – for example, those of political office holders, soldiers, physicians, and lawyers – or confidential information given under the seal of secrecy must be kept, save in exceptional cases where keeping the secret is bound to cause very grave harm to the one who confided it, to the one who received it or to a third party, and where the very grave harm can be avoided only by divulging the truth. Even if not confided under the seal of secrecy, private information prejudicial to another is not to be divulged without a grave and proportionate reason.”

    So if our doctor has grave and proportionate reason – an innocent man will be or has been accused and sentenced for a crime he did not commit – then he may be permitted to divulge the information he received in confidence. On the other hand, the patient is then likely to go to prison (and get additional sentencing for perverting the course of justice, on top of whatever penalty for the crime he committed), so is that causing “very grave harm to the one who confided it”, or is he simply receiving his just deserts?

  • Randy Gritter

    This is the way evil works. We think we are controlling it but it controls us. It effects our thinking in ways we don’t realize. This is why we need to constantly beg God for the grace to be free of evil. I don’t think Bush or Obama get that. They think they have their ways of making the tough decisions. But we need to remain humble. When we struggle against evil we are going to lose. Our reason and our moral intuition is going to be corrupted and we will do evil things we though we were totally incapable of. We need God. We need prayer. We need sacraments. We need to contemplate God’s word. If we try to do it in the flesh we will fail. The idea that Obama or anyone else can tweak his methodology a bit and this will go away is fantasy. It is salvation through reason. It can’t be done.

  • msmischief


    My problem with the “feeling bad about it” is the knowledge that it can lead to your being so preoccupied with how unpleasant it is for you to have to do this morally dubious thing that you manage to inure yourself to the sufferings of those you are doing it to, or even to the possibility that it might not been necessary after all.

    Probably stems from reading about how appaling it is to run a concentration camp. (No, I’m not kidding. What an ordeal that is. What superhuman strength is takes to endure it.)

  • I_say_meh

    “You perhaps even begin to commit, without thinking, a logical error: because you ‘know’ that you only allow yourself to take evil actions when they are necessary, any evil action you consider taking must therefore be the only means of achieving something necessary.”

    This is more than just a logical error. It causes you to scrutinize your actions less, to slack off in the face of a moral dilemma the first time you find a “less evil” solution, when, with a little more wrangling, you might have found a more ethical solution. In this way the “chaotic” detracts from the “good” (incidentally exposing the fact that D&D is not the place to turn to for ethical philosophy).